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News, Romans, & 3 myths of social media influence


Influence is easier to define than identify who has it, although to borrow a phrase, we know it when we see it. It seems to me we know more about its effect than we do its composition and it is the former that organizations are most concerned with, while individuals tend to identify with the latter.

Brian Solis wrote that influence is “the ability to cause measurable actions and outcomes,” and though this definition is applied to social media influence, it is both consistent with the traditional definition of the word and validated by other credible studies of influence.

It is in that context that I would offer that influence is manifested in both people and content.  While the people are usually the origin of influence, it does not always mean that the effect of content is derived from that person’s influence.  Simply put, influential people are capable of incredible gaffes, while those without a track record can suddenly propelled to the forefront of popular discussion.

This dichotomy of influence – from the highest offices in our land, to the kid getting bullied on the playground – is an extreme example for the sake of illustration.  However, it accurately reflects other elements in the composition of influence including timing, relevance, consistency, authenticity and prominence.  Moreover, it’s these variables that have made influence a focal point of the PR profession.

The traditional cornerstone of PR centered on generating news coverage.  Which leads to the question, “What is news?” Media scholars Jamieson and Campbell in the opening pages of their book The Interplay of Influence, say the news is “what reporters, editors and producers decide is news.”

The authors address the contradictions of conventional notions that news is simply “what’s happening” and instead “is selected, even created, by newspeople.” That news “is not ‘just the facts,’ but also rhetoric – messages influencing how readers and viewers perceive reality.”  Many chapters later, they note “the Romans identified three goals of rhetoric: to teach, to delight and to move.”

The Roman philosophy is especially fitting since social media has changed, not our definition of influence, but our views on how it is comprised and who holds it.  There is no clearer demonstration than when Tom Foremski, a former Financial Times reporter points out, that by taking to blogging, some PR pros – like Brian Solis, Todd Defren and Steve Rubel – earn more traffic than some reporters.

While this example provides clarity of effect, it glosses over the composition of influence, that is to say the hard work of getting there.  It invites the reader to incorrectly conclude that a mere presence online will lead to followers and traffic – and followers and traffic lead to influence.   And this leads me to the three myths of social media influence.

1. Presence alone is not enough to build influence

“While anyone can have a social media presence, not everyone possesses social media influence,” wrote Mike Myatt, on the N2Growth blog.  Likewise, simply showing up to a real world networking event does not mean you’ll suddenly have a ton of contacts.

You develop contacts by engaging people:  listening and conversing.  No one wants to network with a person that operates in output-only mode. The next day you send them a note and check in periodically over time, perhaps at your next networking event.  Over time, your professional connections grow, but it’s not without patience, diligence and dedication.

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2. Followers, traffic and views do not alone equal influence

Fast Company created a stir with its influence project – a competition where the winner was determined based on who could get the most clicks on a given link.  “Influence is not popularity,” Damien Basile of Addieu wrote citing Brian Solis in a guest post.  “But it is often confused through the creative stunts and social measurement apps and services that are getting a fair amount of attention these days.”

This sentiment was echoed by others.  “Real Influencers get people to do things because of who they are and what they do. Fast Company’s influencers get people to do things because they’re told to do them,” wrote Rudy Lopes on Smartacus’ blog.  “That’s not influencing, that’s herding. Am I wrong?”

Few would deny clicks, traffic, or followers are rungs on the ladder towards influence, but these alone are not the measurable outcome. Would you rather a person with a million followers, but has never so much as looked at your product give you glowing praise, or have one solid customer, with a few hundred followers, give you an endorsement in response to a prospect’s query on Twitter?

This is analogous to the analysts in the dot-com era of the late ‘90s, where the valuation of tech start-ups was estimated based on eyeballs and traffic.  We all know how that worked out and after 2001, the VCs got smarter:  they wanted a customer first.

Joe Manna sums this point up nicely when he wrote on his blog Dygiscape, “Measuring the influence of someone online is breeding ignorance of the fact that we’re human and will have varying levels of discrimination (and endorsement) of others’ views.”

3. Online influence does not account for total influence

While a variety of tools, free and otherwise, provide the capacity to measure some aspects of online influence, they also present two problems.  First, as John Moore, a CTO turned CEO, and prolific blogger on social media wrote, these tools tend to “focus on user behaviors within a singular communication channel instead of looking at the efforts of the individual, business, or agency across all channels.”

Secondly, as SNCR Fellow Todd Van Hoosear confessed in a learning point on his blog Fresh Ground, “Social media influence does not reflect real life influence.” People still have contacts, connections and influence offline – that is to say the ability to take a reference call from a prospect, an investor, an analyst or a reporter.

Final thoughts: Spheres of influence

I often draw on my military experiences when writing about social media because I find the parallels amazingly similar, both in terms of the dramatic organizational transformation, and the fact that the modern battlefield is as much about winning the war of ideas as it is seizing and holding ground.

Sphere of influence” or SOI is a term often cited in press conferences – and it represents our efforts to identify and engage those “influencers” with a vested stake in the outcome of their government – and ensure they have the resources they need to effect change along the lines of security, governance, infrastructure, and information.

In a real-world semi- or non-permissive environment, like Iraq or Afghanistan, these are the fundamental prerequisites for any (individual) influencer to cause measurable actions and outcomes (for their organization). Perhaps then, as the Romans believed, we’ll get on with teaching, delighting and moving people with rhetorical influence.

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